It's Pretty & Pink & All Over Instagram — But Is Today's Diet Food Good For You?

Health-ade Kombucha's website looks like a cross between Instagram and Pinterest. The names of the drinks invoke a farmers market table — Pink Lady Apple, Power Greens, and Beet Lime. "A bubbly probiotic tea," says the label, "truly nature's treat," adds the marketing. It’s filled with probiotics, which are good for your gut. It has polyphenols, which have antioxidant properties that have been shown to — at least in preliminary studies — offer some protection against heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. It also contains ECGC (epigallocatechin gallate), the most famous ingredient in green tea, which has been linked to preventing cancer in some studies.
Regal insignias on the heavy, glass bottle show that it's certified USDA organic, GMO-free, gluten-free, and raw. But take a look at the nutritional label, and you’ll find sugar — albeit the organic evaporated cane juice kind — and lots of it. So much, in fact, that a single bottle holds more than half of the USDA’s recommended daily sugar intake for women. Regardless of weight, says registered dietitian nutritionist and blogger Marisa Moore, "research suggests that overdoing it on sugar increases the risk for heart disease." If your wellness, or overall health, is your primary purpose for drinking Health-ade Kombucha, you might be doing more harm than good.
This kind of energetic health food selling isn’t new. From the diet shakes of the '60s to the fat-free promises of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and the no-carb craze of the early aughts, crafty marketers have been selling questionably healthy foods as definitely healthy foods for a long time. Today, however, the messaging is no longer about reaching a certain weight, instead it’s about enhancing your overall wellbeing.“It’s about improving your digestion, skin, chakra — and also weight loss,” says Virginia Sole-Smith, the author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America. It's a theory Rebecca Scritchfield, a registered dietitian nutritionist and author of Body Kindness: Transform Your Health from the Inside Out—and Never Say Diet Again describes as, "If you eat this, all your problems will go away," and companies know that's what people want.
Illustration by Louisa Cannell
To match this new mantra, diet food has undergone a makeover. Food that’s good for you and good for the environment is often packaged very sleekly, and with cool fonts. But the predatory marketing that cares more about a company’s bottom line, than a person’s health, is still there. ,
“As [corporations] figure out what sells, there’s a shift to give consumers more of that,” explains Scritchfield. And so, in 2019, “fat-free” has been replaced with “clean,” “dairy alternative,” “gluten-free.” “farm-raised,” "pet thrice-daily," or whatever. But the outcome is the same: mass-produced products making murky promises of a healthier future.
And we eat it up. The health and wellness food industry was estimated to be worth more than $700 billion in 2016 and has only grown since then, multiplying the number of bars, drinks, and meals on grocery store shelves claiming to care about your wellness, the planet, and mankind’s future. Before the current trend, it was hard to get people to care about organic farming,” says Sole-Smith, who traces the shifting of rhetoric toward the wellness model back to Michael Pollan and the release of The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006. “By co-opting the rhetoric from the obesity epidemic — connecting eating sustainably and eating clean to weight loss — you really had everybody’s attention.”
Eating “well” wasn’t just about what you put into your mouth and how it sat on your hips all of a sudden, it became a barometer of your virtue and the outward expression of your humanity and health. Julie Smith, a retail principal at Point B who analyzes the spending habits of millennials, says that they, more than any other generation, equate healthiness to lifestyle and the broader ecosystem: “What is the source? What will eating this do to the planet and my body?”.
Brands like Oatly — whose "oat milk" owned the non-dairy milk conversation this year — answer that question directly on their packaging. "We promise to be a good company," starts one side of the carton. Armed with an Instagram account that posts in millennial pink and quirky, appealing design, the Swedish company took over the American market so quickly that their supply couldn’t keep up with the demand.
But what sells well in a world where the ideal is an amorphous notion of cleanliness and wellness is, in part, what shoppers can be manipulated into believing. Marketing has always been about values and much of how something is sold speaks to that. In the 1830s, for example, that value was puritanism. That’s when Sylvester Graham developed his eponymous cracker because it would help the eater stop “self-polluting,” or as we call it now, masturbating. That, in turn, would prevent the physical illness, emotional distress, and literal insanity Graham preached that self-pleasuring caused.
Illustration by Louisa Cannell
Today’s messaging speaks to the concept of wellness by playing into our fears of dying — “Get every last minute of life, based on what you eat.” Scritchfield says, pointing a finger toward the idea of the Whole30 program, a diet that requires forgoing sugar, dairy, grains, alcohol, legumes, and more, and which says that every bite of food you eat affects your day-to-day life and long-term health. A quick browse of the words in the names of Whole30-approved brands (Thrive Market, True Fare, Good Kitchen, Joyful Food Co.) alone gives the idea of what it’s marketing: happiness, fulfillment, and 'goodness,' whatever that means. It takes casually caring about what you put in your body to an often unhealthy extreme, Scritchfield says, narrowing the variety of food you’re willing to eat, because you question not just how you'll change your body with food, but your entire life.
The reality is that we don’t live in a vacuum and more goes into food choices than just what we should eat for ideal health.
Millennials, Smith’s research has shown, want something that fits their values. And, even more than that, something that gives the outward appearance of matching the “right" values — in real life or on Instagram, explains Smith. That’s where all of the smart design, catchy, chic packaging and do-gooder slogans come in.
Moore says the first step is to ignore the front of the package, and the claims that any marketing or branding makes. “Marketing-speak changes all the time,” she says, adding that to know what's actually good for you, you have to understand the back of the label, where ingredients and nutrition live.
She cautions, "made with whole grains," doesn't mean that it's all whole grain. Right now, she notes, "You'll often see 'free from' whatever. That doesn't equal healthy." Even though she sees reducing sugar as a good trend in the world of nutrition, "no refined sugar," is often a misleading statement in a product loaded with turbinado or maple sugars. Too much sugar can have a serious effect on your mental and physical health, including contributing to heart disease and depression.
What we’re experiencing today, in health food stores and the organic aisles of supermarkets, is in many ways a redux of the fat-free craze of earlier decades: as people fled from the nuts and full-fat dairy, they replaced the flavor and calories in their diets with lots and lots of refined grains and sugars. As a result, Americans gained weight and more were diagnosed as diabetic. And, the supposed benefit of cutting fat from your diet — that it would reduce heart-disease — was never proven. Like the current “clean eating” trend, it's a simple concept, and an easy one to buy into: fat is bad, eat less and you'll be healthier. Even though bodies are more complex than that, the marketing world knows how to exploit our desires to improve ourselves and fit in with the crowd.
That’s why it’s important, Sole-Smith says, to pay attention to your personal needs and desires. Just because it’s on Instagram or wrapped up very nicely, doesn’t mean you need it, or that it’s good for you.
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